SA nanosatellite survives one year in space

Nanosatellite TshepisoSAT has survived a year in space. (CPUT)
Nanosatellite TshepisoSAT has survived a year in space. (CPUT)

Johannesburg - South Africa’s first ‘nanosatellite’ TshepisoSAT has survived one year in space after travelling 250 million kilometres, snapping a range of images and beating “50% survival odds”.

In December last year, TshepisoSAT (meaning 'promise' in Tswana) blasted off on top of a RS-2OB Dnepr rocket from the Yasny Launch Base in Russia.

The tiny 1,2kg cube satellite measures 10x10x10cm and it is about 100 times smaller than Sputnik 1 - the first satellite launched into space in 1957. It also contains 4 000 electronic components and runs on the same amount of power as a three-watt bulb.

TshepisoSAT orbits earth up to 15 times a day at an altitude of 600km and gathers space weather data to help understand how the likes of solar activity impacts earth.

The nanosatellite was designed and built by Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) postgraduate students participating in the Satellite Systems Engineering Programme at the French South African Institute of Technology (F’SATI).

This programme is also in collaboration with the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) and funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF).

Internationally, more than 50% of nanosatellites or 'CubeSats' fail early in their missions. But TshepisoSAT has survived harsh radiation from the sun, extreme temperature fluctuations, a few strong solar storms and two close encounters with defunct Russian satellites.

"The odds are against you when you launch a nanosatellite, but CPUT got it right, and this is a major achievement," said Dr Peter Martinez, the Chairperson of the South African Council for Space Affairs, in a statement.

Humbulani Mdau, Chief Director for Space Science and Technology at the Department of Science and Technology (DST), said that 50 students have graduated through the programme which has a R21m investment from the DST.

"The nanosatellite is testament to the skills in South Africa and its development has been instrumental in creating opportunities for science advancement, as well as human capacity development," he said in a statement.

Director of the CPUT space programme, Professor Robert van Zyl, said in a statement that thanks to the TshepisoSAT, there has been a “tripling of applications for 2015” for Masters degree in electrical engineering with a focus on satellite systems engineering at CPUT.

The next space frontier

Van Zyl said that TshepisoSAT is expected to continue on its six billion kilometre journey before re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“We will continue with commissioning the space weather experiment on board. We will also continue to image South Africa, and will soon start with imaging Africa and other parts of the world," he added.

More ground stations at partnering institutions in SA and in Africa are in the pipeline as well. “This will allow students from across Africa to also track our satellite and participate in the mission," Van Zyl said.

The team at CPUT has also started development on ZACUBE-2, which will be three times larger than the first CubeSat and is to be used for more advanced Earth observation and remote sensing applications, as well as space weather research.

The ZACUBE-2 satellite is planned to launch in 2016.

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